Tim May has made some big changes to the Kingsclere estate over the past decade, shifting from entirely arable to incorporate grassland and three livestock enterprises. Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.
Visiting farms overseas gave Tim May the inspiration and confidence to instil some huge changes on his family’s estate in north Hampshire.
The Kingsclere estate is on the edge of the North Wessex Downs and in 2012 its 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) was entirely arable land managed in eight blocks. Since then more than half of the land has been put into temporary herbal leys, livestock re-introduced and an ‘enterprise stacking’ approach implemented.
Tim, 39, who farms with his father, Robert, was a Nuffield scholar in 2011. His research into sustainability took him to Brazil, America, Kenya and Tanzania, during which time Polyface Farms in the US was particularly inspirational, says Tim.
“They use enterprise stacking where you have one enterprise and layer it with more,” he says. “I could see the potential productivity gains by adopting those principles.”
Tim was also encouraged by fellow Nuffield scholars’ reports on mob grazing and soil carbon which both highlighted the value of grass in the system.
The family had once had indoor pigs and a dairy herd on the estate but sold them in 2002.
“It was not a mixed farm then as they were not integrated,” Tim says. “The decision [to sell] was based on finance but what we realised when we came out of livestock was there was no flexibility in pigs and the dairy cattle.
“We knew going forward we wanted to be more flexible and not be tied into such a long-term commitment with a long payback period. Previously the fields closest to the dairy were high fertility but the outlying fields were poor. We wanted the benefits everywhere, not just in fertility hotspots.”
Tim knew future livestock enterprises needed to be completely mobile and decided to start with sheep. In 2012 the first 380ha (939 acres) of fields were put into grass. He also carried out an extensive five-year cashflow analysis which was quite revealing.
“I found by not spending on 380ha-worth of chemicals and fertiliser I could afford to buy all the sheep and fencing we needed. I had thought I would have to sell machinery to buy the livestock.”
The analysis also highlighted potential pinch points in years two and three which helped inform decisions over a tractor purchase.
Sheep arrived in the form of a complete May lambing flock of 1,500 North of England Mules from a grazier who was planning to retire.
“We bought him out and he then stayed on for 18 months to help us,” Tim says.
The flock now stands at 1,100 ewes lambing at 140 per cent. Breeding too has evolved and the flock is now made up of a mixture of Easy Care, Exlana and Wiltshire Horns, termed as ’wool shedders’ by Tim, which are put to Charmoise rams. Lambs are finished on grass and turnips and sold at 21kg deadweight to Dunbia.
On the remaining arable land, cropping carried on as before, but Tim started questioning use of inputs.
“We stopped using seed dressings and started using more home-saved seed. We also stopped using slug pellets and instead looked at why we had problems with slugs and corrected them with compost, lime or magnesium. Slugs are not a problem they are an indicator of a problem.”
A course with Holistic Management International was another turning point.
“They really get you to look very differently at your business. Instead of spending money on things that need doing every year, it encourages you to fix problems and get out of the situation where you are spending money on inputs. It also makes you work out what you want to get out of life more generally.
“I decided I wanted to spend August with family and friends rather than on a machine, which meant a move away from crops that are harvested in August. It gave me permission to set the business up for me.”
Cropping now includes organic and conventional spring barley, as well as miscanthus (April harvest) and organic quinoa, linseed and millet as an alternative to maize for the cows. All are harvested in September.
Fairly early on Tim discovered the potential of working with business partners to make the enterprise stacking approach work and sustainable. As well as using a contract shepherd and an arable contractor, he sought further partners keen to develop their own livestock enterprises.
“I am trying to end up with more enterprises stacked together run by partners not by us. The idea is they come and have more skin in the game.”
After advertising for share farming partners, Olly Chedgey contacted him.
“We had a walk round the farm and agreed dairy cattle would suit the system and that it needed to be organic for the better prices,” Tim says.
Olly researched mobile parlours and Tim went ahead with organic conversion.
Heifers were purchased and were converted with the land. They chose the KiwiCross which was developed from the Jersey and Holstein Friesian.
By March 2017 the dairy unit, Roaming Dairy, was up and running and is up to 380 cows this year, with the aim of reaching about 525 in-milk. It milks once-a-day using the mobile Open Air Dairy system. Typical yields are 3,500 litres at 4.9 per cent butterfat and 3.78 per cent protein.
Tim says: “Olly owns the parlour and the cows and puts in the labour. We share all the inputs, feed and medication and I am growing the grass and winter forage. The model is working really well."
There is also a poultry enterprise in its early stages with another new entrant. Ben Reynaldo approached Tim as he was keen to start his own livestock business.
“I suggested he look at poultry or pigs because of how it would fit into the grass ley system, as well as the quick turnover and cashflow,” says Tim.
“He started with 25 hens and moved them around every day, then went up to 50 and then 300. This year he has 600. The chickens will start to follow the dairy cattle, moving four days behind the dairy. That way they go in and scratch away the muck to find bugs and beetles. It scatters the muck and gives better pasture hygiene and creates a good symbiosis.”
Eggs have been sold in the local area, but they hope to install a vending machine on-farm and Tim hopes other retail options may be possible too.
He also hopes selling milk from the farm may one day be possible, although at the moment it is collected by Arla.
“That may be something for another partner to bring in – the value-adding side of it,” says Tim. We could have an umbrella brand to add value. We have commercial units on the farm and would like to see how the land could produce the raw material to be processed in those units.
“I do not want to try and do it all myself. I do not have the time nor brain power to do it all. I want to put the message out and open it up for people to come with opportunities and business ideas and how they can integrate them here. They do have to get on board with the mobile enterprise idea though.”
Tim’s new way of farming has been positive financially and for overall well-being.
Financial measures of success need to include sustained business growth that beats true inflation, he says.
“Growing at 7 per cent means that every 10 years you have got to double your profit and that is quite a task.”
Tim hopes to nurture many more partnership businesses on the estate as helping others and his own well-being is also a key measure of success.
“I like to see the partners getting themselves established and their businesses growing. I really enjoy helping to grow their potential. If we are all smiling and if I get my four weeks off in August that will be a success. The estate will be a success when we are not selling commodities but products and when I can retire at 60 with dignity and pride – that is a really big thing for me.”